Reviewed by Ian Lipke
To think I would be up at 4.30 am, reading a book about tall buildings in Moscow, is ludicrous. Yet there I was, sleep-deprived, absorbed in Katherine Zubovich’s Moscow Monumental, a grey, dull-covered book (totally representative of Stalinist times), not something that normally attracts my attention. The source of my interest lies in Zubovich’s command of her subject, the almost cartographic construction of her book, the detailed research that guides her arguments, and the virile prose in which she lays out what she has to say.
Zubovich’s Introduction is akin to a well-constructed classroom lesson, or the argument of a postgraduate thesis. She is a teacher as much as a researcher. She makes a provocative statement: “Moscow’s skyscrapers…stood as monuments to Soviet victory in the Great Patriotic War, as pillars of Russian cultural achievement, and as evidence of the USSR’s emergence as a world superpower in the post-war era” (1), but then reveals that the real position was not quite as simple as that. The buildings in question represent Stalin’s greatness but had outcomes, such as the disruption of people’s lives, that were regarded by the Stalinist bureaucracy as beneath notice. “Monumental by design, Moscow’s skyscraper project had far-reaching consequences for the urban fabric of the Soviet capital and its inhabitants alike” (1).
I did appreciate that the Introduction concluded with a charming cruise down the Moskva River, the author drawing attention to the strategic positioning of each skyscraper and concluding that “in lifting the Soviet capital skyward, these buildings changed the face of Moscow and altered the course of the city’s history” (9).
The reader is about to be told a story, one that unfolds chapter by chapter. It is a tale involving momentous research, that includes trolling through archives of nations, both friendly and/or inimical to the Soviet Union and, to the best of my knowledge, the only book of its kind that does so. The reader will find astute judgments that sort through the lies and evasions that governments employ to hide the truth. As the chapters unfold, the difficulties in getting the project under way in the first place, and the problems that surface and must be overcome, are explored.
Following best pedagogical practice, Zubovich introduces her readers to Moscow and follows that city’s story of architecture until the Palace of Soviets requires expanded treatment. This is given in Chapter 3. The detail in this chapter, if expanded, might well fill a book. However, Zubovich compresses her account into thirty pages. This chapter covers the 1930s, a decade noteworthy for the years of terror. The 1940s, the years of war, internationalism and reconstruction, are described in much depth with ideas interchanged between architects in both the USSR and the USA. This is the honeymoon period before “America’s Red Scare and the Soviet Union’s Zhdanovshchina wrenched these fragile ties apart” (75). The chapter displays a photograph on page 77 of a model of the Palace of Soviets. The photograph has been reproduced with consummate skill.
Chapter Four signals that Moscow would return to pre-war priorities and invest in monumentality, in spite of the long food queues in the streets, the lack of housing, and a failed harvest. Moscow was to be reimagined and reinvented; a timeline of six years was set but proved impossible to meet. This is described as Moscow of the Shadows. The chapter contains some magnificent photographs. Highlights include the delays in the Zariad’e when artifacts of an earlier civilization had to be dug up with great care. This is a well-presented, interesting chapter.
A selection of sub-headings: builders as heroes, women on the construction site, boots on the ground (some call this ‘bums on seats’), communism on the construction site, go far to explain the title to Chapter 6: The Vysotniki. These were the construction workers who built the skyscrapers. Because of their sheer necessity to the success of the building projects, Zubovich devotes a complete chapter to them.
The later chapters shift the focus to those who built and those who lived in the skyscrapers. Chapter Six captures Zubovich in pensive mood, weighing “the idealised skyscraper builder – the vysotnik – against the reality of life on these construction sites” (5). In the next chapter, Zubovich reveals that those aspiring to a life in an apartment, high above the masses, found themselves negotiating with the Soviet state.
Then comes a turn in the narrative. By the mid-50s the great monuments have reached completion (that is, seven of them have done so). Stalin has died and the new leader is Nikita Khrushchev, who, in 1956 at the twentieth Congress of the Communist Party over an uncomfortable six hours, stunned the delegates with his denunciation of the excesses of the Stalin era and Stalin’s personality cult. The skyscrapers and their architects and builders were not missed.
Monumentality is not new. The Pyramids of Egypt have been eye-catching examples for millennia. In the Soviet Union, such a building as the Palace of Soviets was a dress rehearsal for the constructions to follow. Zubovich directs our thoughts to the situation “when monumental plan met material reality” (2), when architects and builders, at the direction of the government, faced turning out from their homes, thousands of impoverished villagers, hundreds of church folk, and numerous individuals to make way for the outward expression of an idea. This book explores what diverse groups saw in these buildings and weighs the splendour of the apartments held by politicians and bureaucracies against the heartache arising from abandonment of promises made to the workers. Hence the identification and laying out of consequences form a large part of the text.
Zubovich shows that her skyscrapers took no small part in influencing the shifting dynamics of Soviet internationalism. She provides a fascinating journey from the 1930s to the 1950s and the xenophobic and anti-western ideological campaigns that ensued. Moreover, the author shows that Moscow’s skyscrapers resided in harmony with the existing cityscape, yet “stood as evidence of the tension between history and revolution” (4). What faced the early builders was the decision over which ‘past’, which heritage, the building should represent. Russia, and later the USSR, had so many.
This review merely scrapes the surface of a vast treasure.
By Katherine Zubovich
Princeton University Press
USD39.95; 288 pp
Hardback | Dec 2020 | Princeton University Press | 9780691178905 | 280pp | 235x155mm | GEN | AUD$72.99, NZD$89.99